I’ll never understand what mainstream liberals have against feminism.
Which brings us to “Raising Hell,” by Philip Longman, the cover story of this week’s Washington Monthly. Here’s a sample:
All of us benefit hugely from such parental investment. What could you buy with your Social Security check, or your I.R.A.s for that matter, if everyone else in your generation had simply forgotten to have children or had failed to invest in them? Yet parents do not receive any greater pensions than non-parents for the sacrifices they make to raise and educate the future workers upon whom we will all depend in old age.
We also live in an increasingly knowledge-based economy in which the formation of human capital becomes increasingly essential to all sectors. Yet again, we leave the cost of amassing this human capital primarily in the hands of individual parents and low-paid caregivers and educators, nearly all of whom could vastly increase their incomes simply by getting out of the “nurturing business.” [...]
These two trends–the mounting costs of caring for a growing elderly population and the increasing importance of human capital to the economy–have fundamentally altered the economics of family life. To put it bluntly, childrearing is fast becoming a sucker’s game.
I very much agree with Mr. Longman here. Of course, it’s all pretty familiar; there’s next-to-nothing here that isn’t cribbed from feminist books like Nancy Folbre’s The Invisible Heart and Who Pays for the Kids, and Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood. (Longman even quotes Folbre directly at one point, without mentioning that she’s a prominent feminist). If you look in the academic literature, the feminist writings similar to what Longman writes here go back many years. Still, it’s good that this idea – that raising children should be understood as a public good – is spreading.
Of course, after spending most of an essay discussing feminist ideas as if he made them up out of thin air, Longman names the villains who have prevented pro-caregiver reforms from taking place: conservatives and feminists.
Since then, Friedan’s argument that over-mothering was causing male homosexuality to spread “like murky smog over the American landscape” has lost resonance on the Left. But her general critique, that motherhood should not be a woman’s highest calling or priority, has not lost its following. And so the preoccupations of modern feminism, and of the Left in general for the last generation, have been with issues of personal liberation, birth control, abortion, and access to the market economy.
Friedan’s homophobia was appalling – but it was also thirty years ago, and has long been repudiated by feminists. To suggest that Betty Friedan’s decades-ago homophobia shows that current-day feminists don’t support caregivers is bizarre and incoherent.
Longman’s basic policy prescription is a cut in payroll taxes for working parents; is there a single policy-oriented feminist or feminist economist who opposes such a program? Are feminist legislators like Nina Lowrey (who proposes Social Security credits for caregivers) the hold-up? How about organizations like MOTHERS (founded by feminists Naomi Wolf and Ann Crittenden) – are they opposing such policies?
Get real. As far as I can tell, virtually all the people who have been working for economic support and security for caregivers (not just parents, but other caregivers, such as people caring for elderly relatives) are feminists.
Do feminists say “motherhood should not be a woman’s highest calling or priority?” Perhaps some do, somewhere (although Longman doesn’t provide any evidence to support this stereotype). That’s certainly not what some feminists Longman has read – such as Nancy Folbre – say about motherhood. What the feminists I know say is that motherhood shouldn’t be women’s only socially acceptable calling – being a mother is fine, but so is not being a mother – and that fathers should take a fair share of the caregiving load, too.
It’s true that over the last generation, feminists have worked for reproductive rights, equal access to decent-paying jobs, and (horrors!) personal liberation; surely The Washington Monthly isn’t saying that feminists should have ignored these issues?
What Longman doesn’t acknowledge is that feminists have also been working on helping working parents, through lobbying for child care, for family leave, and through advocating the sorts of policies Longman is talking about – as well as policies he isn’t talking about, such as Social Security credit for caregivers.
To claim that feminists are blocking such legislation is a bizarre, anti-feminist lie – made even more bizarre by the fact that most of the ideas this article recycles were developed by feminists. While I support much of the analysis in this article, I find it disappointing that the Washington Monthly thinks feminists are as much to blame as Republicans for opposing pro-caregiver policies – when feminists have actually been far more supportive of such policies than anyone else in the Democratic coaltion.
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UPDATE: There is part of Longman’s policy that I don’t think I support. He suggests that parents whose children don’t graduate from high school should be penalized by getting less social security than other parents.
There’s an economic logic there, in that parents of children who graduate high school have, in a sense, “created more value” and should be rewarded for it. But the possible injustices of this policy are bothersome. My cousin died accidentally at age sixteen; the idea of penalizing her parents financially for that tragedy is repulsive. How about parents of mentally disabled children who cannot be fairly expected to graduate? For that matter, given how strongly dropping out is related to poverty and race, there’s something disturbing about economically punishing families of drop-outs – don’t they have enough economic problems?
There’s also a bizarre sort of discrimination against parenting in Longman’s proposal. Parents should get Social Security credit for parenting because what they do is work – and socially important work. But other workers don’t get Social Security depending on whether or not society likes the outcome of their labor. We don’t, for instance, deny folks who have been working at Enron their Social Security for that time – even though, on the whole, Enron has been a net drain on society and on the economy.
Justice issues aside, there are practical problems. What do we do with families that have two children, only one of whom graduates? How will the Social Security Administration keep track of whose children have graduated? The federal goverment doesn’t currently keep a list of who has and hasn’t graduated – and Longman claims his plan won’t require a vast new bureaucracy – so I don’t know where the SSA is going to get that information.
Finally, I wonder if increasing Social Security payments for parents of high school graduates actually would increase graduation rates. Is the reason some kids don’t graduate really that their parents lack financial motive? That doesn’t make much sense – parents would be awfully short-sighted not to see possible benefits in their children prospering. And if they really are that short-sighted, will reducing their future Social Secuirty payments actually change their behavior?